Top-of-the-table Arsenal head to Anfield on Saturday, knowing that only a win will guarantee that they remain at the head of the Premier League table for another week.
The Gunners are currently unbeaten in their last seven league fixtures, while Liverpool are undefeated in five. Squawka takes a look at three areas in which the game could be won or lost.
Steven Gerrard vs. Mesut Ozil
Home boss Brendan Rodgers has frequently spoken of the long-term transition of Steven Gerrard from an all-action attacking player to a holding midfield player in the mould of Andrea Pirlo.
Injury to Lucas Leiva has meant that this has come quicker than both men may have envisaged, with the Gerrard experiment having mixed results so far. As good as he was against Everton and West Brom, he was overrun against Aston Villa and Stoke City and will be in for his toughest test yet against Arsenal.
The Gunners' ability to dominate midfield areas helped them to a 2-0 victory in the reverse fixture and could be the key area if they are to repeat the feat in this matchup. Their likely midfield five have all averaged over 50 passes per 90 minutes played this season and will provide the main threat to Liverpool.
Questions remain over the ability of Gerrard to make the position in front of the back four his own.
While he has grown into the role after a sticky start and has stuck to his position well, he has yet to fully show the awareness of someone who is 100 percent comfortable in the position. This may come in time, but Arsenal’s mobile midfield quintet will be optimistic of being able to target Gerrard as a weak link and could leave him chasing shadows.
In recent games Rodgers has taken a gung-ho approach to his midfield, with Gerrard sitting behind Jordan Henderson, Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and the infamous SAS strike force of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez.
Rodgers faces a dilemma over whether to continue with such a bold line-up or to bring Joe Allen into the midfield to give solidity in the face of Arsenal’s plethora of ball-playing midfield talent, but either way Gerrard is likely to be busy in front of the Liverpool back four.
Since moving to the position, Gerrard has provided an effective defensive screen for the back four and has averaged eight defensive actions per game. He has also made 11 tackles across the four games played in the role and will need to replicate such form against Arsenal’s talisman, Mesut Ozil.
Ozil has created 55 chances this season, eight of which have been converted, operating in the role behind lone striker Olivier Giroud. He is likely to be joined in central areas by Santi Cazorla drifting in from the left, alongside Mikel Arteta and the fit-again Jack Wilshere, heightening the importance of Gerrard’s role—and of Henderson and Coutinho in front of him.
In the return fixture, 55.6 percent of Arsenal’s chances came from central areas, and with the pure numbers that are likely to face Gerrard, the same is likely tomorrow—this will be a key battle.
However, it would be doing Gerrard a disservice to simply say that this is a one-way battle. In order to stop Liverpool attacking, Arsenal must close Gerrard down quickly in order to nullify his passing range. His tendency for the Hollywood pass may sometimes be frustrating, but Gerrard’s long-ball ability can ensure that Liverpool quickly shift the ball from back to front and can set up breakaways for their pacey attackers.
Suarez and Sturridge vs. Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny
The aforementioned pacey attackers, Suarez and Sturridge, provide the key battle at the other end of the pitch. Between them, Sturridge and Suarez have scored 37 Premier League goals this season—64 percent of the side’s total.
The bulk of these have come from Suarez, who has scored 23, but both men average a goal or better per 90 minutes played. Sturridge averages one goal every 90 minutes, whilst Suarez has scored a goal every 74 minutes. Suarez has also created a large number of chances (54) and has seven assists over the course of the season.
However, they face a defence that has conceded just 21 goals this season, an average of 0.88 per game. Only Chelsea have conceded fewer goals than Arsenal this term, largely due to the form of central-defensive duo Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny.
The pair successfully stifled Suarez and Sturridge in the first meeting between the two sides and know that if they can repeat that, then they are unlikely to leave Anfield empty-handed. The pairing is arguably the league’s best this season and complement each other’s skill sets well.
One attribute that could be key is Koscielny’s speed. The Frenchman made four tackles in the return fixture, three of which came on Suarez, and his ability to keep up with breaking forward players and produce a tackle helped to reduce the effect of Suarez at the Emirates.
Since returning from suspension, Suarez has scored in 12 of Liverpool’s 19 fixtures. Eleven of those have ended in victory and the other being a draw, meaning that Liverpool are unbeaten in games in which Suarez has scored. However, they have not won any of the seven games in which Suarez has played and not scored, recording four losses and three defeats from those fixtures.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain vs. Aly Cissokho
Last week’s match-winner for Arsenal could find himself up against the current occupant of Liverpool’s problematic left-back area, should Wilshere return to his central-midfield berth. In 25 appearances last season, the bulk of which came from right midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain created 19 chances and completed 30 take-ons.
Cissokho’s eagerness to get forward, in tandem with his shambolic positioning and lackadaisical approach to tracking back when caught upfield, means that Oxlade-Chamberlain—or whoever plays on the right-hand side for Arsenal—is likely to have space to exploit behind him.
Even when he has been in defensive positions this season, Cissokho is yet to excel. The Frenchman has made almost as many fouls (nine) as he has made tackles (14) this season, while he has a tackle success rate of just 40 percent.